TOP O' THE MORN: Oak Harbor slowly but surely became a Navy town

Some of us remember the historic 1920s and 1930s. I was a teenager in the 1920s, the era when Flapper Fanny, with her bobbed hair, rouge, silk stockings and short skirts, marked the time frame.

Toward the end of the 20s pajamas came into style heralding the pants of today, and in Oak Harbor we remember one woman wore a wide-legged yellow flowered suit of pajamas to amaze the residents of old Oak Harbor! Slacks soon became the wearing apparel of young and old, and still are. Women wear slacks to church, to go grocery shopping, and to the beach. And they think nothing of it. We don’t think so much of it ourself!

We were asked this week a simple question: What effect did the Navy have on the town?

We thought the questioner was kidding. He wasn’t. So we had to answer him. In America we are used to people from all over the world becoming Americans, sending their children to school, working, learning the new language.

So when the naval air station came to build plane fields and housing, Oak Harbor opened her arms to do all they could do for them. We were at war! And everyone, from Rosie the Riveter to the Naval Air station’s commanding officer, worked together.

After 10 years of the Great Depression, Oak Harbor put up with almost anything. But the Navy wasn’t just “anything.” It offered jobs to men who had eked out an existence with government help (WPA, etc.) and made a growing, workable town out of a village.

Carpenters, electricians, plumbers, office workers ... the Navy in Oak Harbor wasn’t just a uniformed governmental contingent. It quickly became Oak Harbor, just as Oak Harbor became the Navy.

Homes went up on Eerkes Hill and Clover Valley. Farms became runways for planes and stores began to spring up here and there to meet the growing population demand. It soon became apparent that the Navy men who retired here planned to stay here. Retired Navy men became school board members, city councilmen, rotarians and other community members; churches grew, areas annexed, streets and parks appeared, and the town and Navy celebrated Holland Happening and the Fourth of July in parades together.

When the Navy first came to Oak Harbor, housing was almost non-existent, but residents did their best. We recall our mothers saying that “a Navy boy knocked at the door today and asked if we had a cot or a bedroom that he could rent.” His mother was coming to visit and there was no place for her to stay!

A former chicken farmer on the outskirts of town had a long row of chicken houses, which he cleaned and made into small apartments which were gobbled up fast.

Oak Harborites did their best to entertain the young Navy boys, and the USO sponsored evening openings and dances. Many, many local girls became Navy wives and many are still making their homes in Oak Harbor.

In place of the high school and one elementary school of the 1930s, schools began to proliferate, and we aren’t sure just how many there are today, but it seems like one on every street sometimes. And today, 60-some years later, a Skagit Valley College branch is growing at the foot of Eerkes Hill.

Victory Homes on Eerkes Hill have been done away with and new, big homes are going up with a view of Oak Harbor and Crescent Harbor bays.

We watched Oak Harbor grow after the Deception Pass Bridge was opened in 1935; we saw our family home on Pioneer Way become a restaurant on Midway; we saw a new downtown area of stores spring up near the Navy gate, and another shopping area on Midway Boulevard with top stores.

We remember, we remember ... of course we remember what Oak Harbor was like back in 1925 when our parents, brother and sisters came to live here. It was an exciting time, moving from a “big” town like Mount Vernon to Whidbey Island. But we found a lot to entertain us. Suddenly there was a beach just down the road, lakes and friendly people. We don’t go swimming in the cold water off today’s Pioneer Way, we don’t pump our water by hand either —things change.

We are a Navy town!

Dorothy Neil has recorded local history for more than 50 years. Her 10 books chronicle Whidbey Island life and times.

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